Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Rating the contenders

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA - Former NFL coach Bill Parcells once said "you are what your record says you are."

Truer words have never been spoken in professional sports. At the end of the day, no matter what obstacles were placed in front of you, winning is the only option. It's about as unforgiving a business as there is.

There are no excuses, there are no bailouts and there are no government mandates requiring the haves to help the have-nots. Coaches that complain about injuries or a lack of talent might as well reserve their place on the unemployment line.

No one wants to hear it. It's sink or swim, win or get lost.

Kobe Bryant remains the best closer west of Mariano Rivera.
The NBA is about three weeks away from wrapping up its regular season. That's quite the sample size and we have all seen enough basketball by now to differentiate the pretenders from the contenders.

At one end of the spectrum, teams like New Jersey, Minnesota and Golden State are dreaming of a John Wall or Evan Turner. At the other end, a few teams are quietly thinking about unfurling a championship banner.

Who has a legitimate shot?

It's time to rate the contenders...

1. - Los Angeles Lakers - The reigning champs have coasted through the regular season. Kobe Bryant remains the best closer west of Mariano Rivera and Pau Gasol is the top sidekick in all of basketball. But, there are a few chinks in the armor. Ron Artest is a better all-around basketball player than Trevor Ariza but Ariza was a more competent role player in LA, secure in toning down his game, knowing Kobe and Pau need the majority of shots in key moments. Meanwhile, center Andrew Bynum just suffered his annual leg injury and Gasol is starting to make waves about wanting to be "the guy," a ridiculous sentiment with Bryant around.

2. - Cleveland Cavaliers - The Cavs have the NBA's best record and the league's best player in LeBron James but it remains to be seen if they have done enough to match up with an Orlando team that can still spread the floor better than anyone. Adding Antawn Jamison to the mix should help Cleveland avoid those long offensive lulls and take some of the pressure off James.

3. - Orlando Magic - I wasn't in love with Vince Carter replacing Hedo Turkoglu in the Magic Kingdom, but Carter has fit in nicely and Matt Barnes has brought a toughness to this team that wasn't there last season when they succumbed to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Orlando remains a deeper team than Cleveland and the Magic still look like a very tough matchup on paper for the Cavs.

4. - Dallas Mavericks - Acquiring Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler at the trade deadline infused some much-needed toughness to a Dallas team most felt was soft, especially on the defensive end. That deal could end up being the final piece of the championship puzzle in Big D and at worst, certainly made the club a serious championship contender.

5. - Denver Nuggets - The Nuggets are loaded with talent but I can't help feeling the residual effects of George Karl's illness will eventually hurt this team. Adrian Dantley has done a fabulous job filling in for Karl but things get much tougher in postseason basketball, where the name of the game is adjusting from contest to contest. Karl has few peers when it comes to X's and O's and if he can't make it back on a consistent basis, it will certainly hurt his team.

6. - Utah Jazz - Year-in and year-out, it's almost Groundhog Day in Utah. Whether its John Stockton-to-Karl Malone or Deron Williams-to-Carlos Boozer, no one ever takes the Jazz all that seriously since the club is always good but never good enough to get over the top. Williams has turned up his game a notch this season and has been the game's best point guard, making Utah a little more dangerous this time around.

7. - Atlanta Hawks - The Hawks are loaded with young talent and continue to get better and better. This season, Atlanta is neck-and-neck with the battle- tested Celtics for the third spot in the East, but the team is clearly still a step or two behind both Cleveland and Orlando.

8. - Boston Celtics - The hope was that the old war horses, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, could make one more legitimate run at an NBA crown. But, it's becoming clear that the tread is wearing thin on Garnett's and Allen's tires. In fact, Rajon Rondo is the only "star" in Boston on the upside of his career.

9. - Oklahoma City - This team is scary. Kevin Durant can go off for 35 points on any night and he's not even the best all-around player on the team. That mantle belongs to Russell Westbrook, a daily triple-double threat that can also get after you defensively. Add Jeff Green, James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha to that mix and the Thunder may be the most athletic team in all of basketball. Obviously, the fly in the ointment is a lack of playoff experience, but I can't see many teams clamoring to play Oklahoma City.

10. - San Antonio Spurs - The Spurs are like the West's version of Boston. Their big three - Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili - is also aging rapidly and one of them seems to always be battling some kind of injury. That said, I wouldn't bet against any of them with the game on the line, but San Antonio just doesn't have enough support on hand. Richard Jefferson has been a big disappointment. The young players certainly have their moments, but are too mistake-prone for postseason basketball.
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